Review: Days Of Heaven (1978)

days-of-heaven-1

That Terrence Malick sure does make pretty films!

Written By: Terrence Malick
Directed By: Terrence Malick

I don’t want to shortchange Néstor Almendros in any way when I talk about the visuals in Days Of Heaven. His cinematography is excellent, some of the best ever seen in cinema, but Days Of Heaven is a Terrence Malick film and the film has his obvious visual style. I don’t usually like to gush in my reviews, I know that I sometimes do, but there isn’t a way to talk about the visuals in Days Of Heaven without gushing. I don’t know, maybe someone can, but I can’t, because I have sat here staring at my screen for thirty minutes trying to think of some way to talk about the visuals in a non-gushing fashion, and I am at a blank.

Every moment of Days Of Heaven looks gorgeous, there’s no other way to put it. But, not only does it look gorgeous, it tells a story. That is what make the visuals in Days Of Heaven the best ever put to screen, other films have looked just as gorgeous, but there is a difference between pretty visuals and pretty visuals that tell you the story of the film. Each shot in Days Of Heaven serves a purpose, whether to the given narrative or to how I was interpreting the film. There isn’t a sense of visuals just taking place. When the biblical fire is taking place I was struck by the beauty of the film, but at the same time each and every frame told me the story of the film. I don’t know what else to say, the visuals in Days Of Heaven leave me at a loss for how to properly describe them, so, uh, they are great and stuff.

The surface narrative in Days Of Heaven is a love story, a love story for its time, but a love story nonetheless. There are also elements of culture and the elite versus the downtrodden tossed in, but for me the narrative was most focused on the idea of love and two men trying to use their love to control a woman who doesn’t want to be controlled while all she wants to do is give her love freely and receive the same in return. I was more interested in what the images were telling me. Now, it is only my interpretation, but Days Of Heaven is a giant allegory for the unnatural taking on the natural. In the beginning we see a steel mill, by itself it is an unnatural being and it brings with it death and alienation. Once we move to the fields it does become a story of man versus nature. Man wants to control nature and while it may win for a while, eventually nature fights back and rules the day. Above all else that element of Days Of Heaven screamed out at me the loudest. The unnatural may control the natural for a long time, but eventually the natural will fight back and regain control because it is the true way of things while the unnatural is an aberration.

If Days Of Heaven offers all of the above, then it has to be a masterpiece, correct? Not so fast, because while they may be small, there are a few facets in Days Of Heaven that hold the film back. The visuals are amazing, but they are accompanied by a narration that isn’t always needed. I didn’t have a problem with the narration in general, but the few times when the narration felt the need to tell us verbatim what was taking place on screen it became highly annoying. The narration creates an emotional distance from what is taking place, and while Malick works with this for the most part, there were times when I failed to connect with what I was seeing because of that emotional distance. The death of Richard Gere for instance failed to make any impact on me, because I realized I had followed his story and was interested, but I didn’t care about what his death meant or how it would affect those around him.

The bottom line in the case of Days Of Heaven is that it is a visually striking film that is captivating to watch. It is held back by the few flaws that I listed above, but it is still an excellent picture. If for nothing else Days Of Heaven is a film people need to see because of its amazing visuals. It’s a lot like poetry put to screen, whether that does anything for you I don’t know, but I found Days Of Heaven a highly rewarding experience and maybe you will too.

Rating:

***1/2

Cheers,
Bill

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7 responses to “Review: Days Of Heaven (1978)

  1. You gave Days of Heaven 3 1/2 asterisks out of 4 and explaine, rather well I’d say, how the visuals have a purpose in the film and assist the story telling.

    I didn’t have that reaction. Days of Heaven is the kind of film I would give half its points to. At least because it looks beautiful, but at the same only half because I was never hit with the sense that the visuals told me a story. They give indications on the mood, tone and time setting (all storytelling elements), but ultimately I simply don’t find many memorable things in the film. I really didn’t give a hoot about the three main principle characters.

    I’ve been meanin to watch the film again (I saw it a couple of years ago) and perhaps I might find something I missed the first time, I don’t know. As it stands, Days of Heaven is a beautiful moving painting, but nothing more.

  2. Bill Thompson

    I’m wondering if you’ve had the same reaction to other Malick?

  3. bboylenotes

    I wrote a brief essay on this film at my blog: http://bboylenotes.wordpress.com

    The emotional distance is something that Roger Ebert talked about at length in his “Great Movies” essay on this film. You are not meant to be watching the film from the point of view of the three adults, but from Linda’s. It’s all about her looking back on events that she didn’t entirely understand and trying to convince herself that she wasn’t as hurt as she was.

  4. If narrated cinema found and lost its first exemplar in Welles it refound him in Malick. It astonishes me that a critic cannot feel the resonance between the visual’poetry’ and the existential questioning of a young girl whose greeness is skin deep. There is as much poetry in her asides as there is in the vast visuals. It fits for me and I would feel a fool if it didn’t.

  5. Boyle – I got that, but I didn’t like the way it came across. Too often the narration pulled me out of what was happening or created said distance between myself and the film, and while it may have been done for artistic reasons it created a scenario where the movie didn’t fully resonate with me.

    Johnny – You must be astonished a lot then, because quite a few critics, and film aficionados, failed to find the resonance that you did. That doesn’t make them, or me, foolish, just people who didn’t feel the same way you did about a film.

  6. Yes, it appears that a few critics felt as you did Bill about the narration. I should have spent time finding this out. I will go back to the film again with this knowledge in mind. The ‘foolish’ comment was referring to myself as the narration engaged me entirely and created no alienating distance for me. Even now I wonder about what happened to Linda, and all the other people who looked for a better life in the vast healing countryside away from the harsh industrial centres of America when it was finding itself. Great narrative art always leaves us involved emotionally with the protagonists, all other aesthetic judgement aside.

  7. Pingback: Postulating & Pontificating: Upcoming Direction! | Bill's Movie Emporium

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